DSO Appoints First-Ever Female Principal Guest Conductor

Gemma New is DSO's new principal guest conductor.
Gemma New is DSO's new principal guest conductor.
Roy Cox
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German conductor Claus Peter Flor was the last person to have the title of principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He left the role in 2008 after a nine-year tenure. Now, 10 years later, the DSO has announced that 31-year-old New Zealand native Gemma New will take the spot. She’ll begin this new role in the 2019-20 season, coinciding with the DSO’s inaugural Women in Classical Music Symposium.

New was unanimously chosen following an extensive search by a committee of DSO musicians, board and staff members, and with the artistic leadership of music director Fabio Luisi.

In addition to guest conducting appearances with orchestras around the world, she’s music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic in Ontario, Canada, resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and music director of the St. Louis Youth Orchestra.

She keeps busy, but she found time to answer a few of our questions.

What excited you most about this position?
The Dallas Symphony is an exceptional orchestra with world-class musicians who share exquisite artistry and a staff that leads with inspiring vision. I am so excited to become a part of this splendid team. I am very much looking forward to performing many engaging and insightful programs with the wonderful DSO musicians, on the beautiful Meyerson Symphony Center stage, for our enthusiastic Dallas audiences.

What exactly does this role entail? What will your primary responsibilities be?
Having the principal guest conductor position basically means that I will be rehearsing and performing with the orchestra a bit more regularly than other guest conductors. This gives us a chance for our musical relationship to grow deeper and stronger over a longer period of time. In collaboration with the artistic staff, I will be programming concerts that complement the leadership and vision of both Fabio Luisi and the DSO. I especially look forward to conducting contemporary works by some wonderful composers whose music strongly resonates with me.

What are your first impressions of Fabio Luisi? Are you looking forward to working with him more closely?
I do very much look forward to meeting Fabio for the first time soon and working closely with him. This new leadership, along with the excellent existing artistic practices of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, is a formidable partnership, and I look forward to seeing how many exciting projects and moving musical experiences we can all achieve together.

Since the position of DSO principal guest conductor has been vacant for 10 years now, do you feel like you have the freedom to sort of make it your own? Is that exciting for you?
It is an immense privilege to accept this position of principal guest conductor with the DSO, especially at a time when the DSO is beginning several new, exciting initiatives. Whenever I start a new relationship with an orchestra, I spend most of the initial encounters listening carefully to the musicians, staff and orchestra supporters, in order to get a sense of how I can best contribute to the organization. In this DSO position I do feel there is freedom to program repertoire that resonate most strongly with me, and I sense there is lots of potential for us to build some meaningful projects and experiences together.

Tell me about your interest in contemporary music. Is it your hope to introduce more contemporary music to Dallas audiences?
From 2010 to 2016, I led the Lunar Ensemble, a contemporary music ensemble based in Baltimore, and it nurtured my love for new music. There is so much superb music out there that explores the messages and styles of our time. I truly believe that our current audiences should be able to naturally relate or viscerally react to works of today. In order to reach out to every audience member, no matter where they may be at on their musical journey, I often ensure the composer is present to share insight about the piece, or I share notes about the piece before the performance. This way, everyone will have some personal understanding about the work before they hear it for the first time.

Has being a young female conductor posed many challenges throughout your career, since the majority of prominent conductors tend to be men? How do you deal with these challenges? What do you think of the DSO's women in classical music initiatives?
Based on my personal experience, I suspect that all conductors face challenges, and the combination of challenges is unique to the individual. I took quite some time during my formative years figuring out who I am most naturally, and also what kind of person I want to be and how to work towards that. Since conducting is so much about communication — gesturally, verbally and sensory — it’s important to be calm and comfortable in your own skin when you need to focus on the music, musicians and the tasks at hand. The DSO initiative I am most excited about being a part of is the project to commission 20 works by female composers, and I can’t wait to tell you more about it when I’m allowed to.

What do you do when you’re not conducting to prepare for upcoming performances?
When I’m not conducting, I am most often studying scores. The performance is a precious jewel at the end of a long road. The largest part of the job is preparing for the first rehearsal, and perhaps also the many hours of deliberation between rehearsals.

Have you spent much time in Dallas? What are you most looking forward to about spending more time here in the future?
I have spent quite a bit of time at the impressive Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It’s always quite a spectacle seeing Dallas from above as you fly into the city — all those wide highways. They are very different from the narrow, steep, winding roads of New Zealand.

I look forward to getting to know the warm and welcoming people of Dallas, exploring the delicious cuisine, and enjoying the impressive architecture and arts culture in this vibrant city.

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